From a Flower to Your Heart

The tiny white flower grows and chocolate is the final result and what a journey.

Valentine’s Day is my favorite celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t a holiday, it is a marketing event. While it seems so commercial today, I am surprised to discover it has always been about marketing! In the late 1800s, Richard Cadbury needed to sell more chocolates to use his company’s cocoa butter surplus. Victorians were great fans of Valentine’s Day; they expressed their love in elaborate greeting cards (postage was affordable.) Chocolate became available to the masses (sugar had become cheaper), so Cadbury created a moment of marketing magic, the heart-shaped chocolate box. This beautiful box was sold as a dual-purpose gift because after your sweetheart ate the chocolates, she could use the heart-shaped box to store love letters and romantic mementos.1 In the US, Hershey chocolates made their famous kisses in 1907 continuing the romantic alliance.2

My relationship with chocolate was only at the retail end until my garden travels introduced me to the tiny white flowers emerging directly from the tree trunk of cacao trees.

Each tiny flower can grow into a pod

Like the equally essential coffee and vanilla, the primary growing area for chocolate is in the tropical regions of this planet. While the Dutch, Swiss, and Belgians may be well known for their exquisite chocolate, it doesn’t grow there; it is only processed and sold there. The long journey to a candy counter near you begins 20 degrees above and below the equator.

Green pod growing

The cacao or “chocolate tree” is an understory tree, requiring shade, heat, and moisture. Worldwide “90% of cocoa is grown on small family farms of 4-12 acres (2-5 hectares).” It is a labor-intensive crop. It requires six months for the flower to grow into a ripened pod about 10-12 inches long. The crop doesn’t ripen seasonally. Instead, the pods have to be harvested by hand at peak ripeness requiring harvesting every 10-14 days.

A ripened pod

The luscious chocolate we know today begins with cracking open a pod and the 25-30 beans extracted from the surrounding white pulp.

A split cacao pod

Thanks to curiosity and inventiveness centuries ago, someone looked at this sticky mess and decided to taste it. Then they thought, oh, let’s ferment it and let it get stinky for a few days. After that, let’s dry it out for days, grind it, blow away the papery shells, roast it and then add hot water to it!

Beans ready for fermenting will be covered by banana leaves

The resulting bitter drink prized for its stimulating health effects and aphrodisiac powers was served with great exuberance by the Aztecs of Mexico. It became known as “the elixir of the gods.” The beans were so highly valued they were used as currency as valuable as gold.

Beans once were coins in your pocket.  Unroasted & Roasted

After the Spanish conquistadors led by Cortez conquered the Aztecs, he took those valuable beans back to Spain, where its aphrodisiac powers quickly increased the popularity of cocoa. Conquest, trade, and export moved cocoa beans worldwide, and people became very creative in attempting to create prized drinking chocolate.

Hot Chocolate of today is much sweeter than in the period of the Aztecs

As sugar became more accessible, Cadbury Company in England perfected the recipe. Cocoa butter was a by-product left from making drinking chocolate, and like all good business practices, it needed a purpose. Tinkering with the leftover stuff, Cadbury created new recipes adding sugar, milk, and careful tempered mixing to eventually create a solid block or the first candy bar for “eating chocolate” in 1847.

A Chocolate Board–bars, mousse, truffles, ganache, and white kisses.

Now look how far we have come; we have chocolate wrapped around caramels, nuts, nougats, and pretzels. Today chocolate of some variety is available nearly everywhere, from boutique stores to gas stations. You can buy it by the pound, by the piece by the bag, by the box. You can enjoy it by the spoon, by your preferred number of 60%, 70%, 85%, by the color, milk, dark, in frozen treats or hot cups. Today we expect it always to be there whenever we want a little something sweet.

Farmers Organizing for better working conditions

What hasn’t come as far are the farmers and the workers growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, and packing. “The Ivory Coast (South Coast of West Africa) is the leading supplier in the world for Cacao.”3 The average cacao farmer makes about two US dollars a day. Wages are so low many cacao farmers have never tasted the chocolate they grow. These facts make chocolate less sweet for my heart-shaped celebration. Chocolate production requires predictable growing conditions and climate change threatens production. A tree doesn’t begin producing a viable crop until it is around five years old and is most productive for about 20 years. The organization Fair Trade Chocolate4 as well as Hershey and other chocolate producers are working to improve the lives of the cacao farmers. Much is yet to be done.

Beans bagged for export

After tours in Granada and Ecuador, I learned about the different varieties of cacao trees, Arriba, Criollo, Faraster, Trinitario, and multiple subsequent hybrids. Cacao, like fine wine, is affected by the soil and influences the floral and fruity flavor in the final product. Around the world, competing claims and competitions abound for the origin of the very best chocolate. “Ecuador’s Nacional variety is a genetic variety from the first domesticated cacao trees over 5000 years ago.”5 I stand in awe of how complex the process is and the interdependence of all agriculture.

Beans in varying stages of dryness

Ecuador growers are creating their own chocolates, rather than exporting to processors overseas.  My personal tasting research can attest to their flavorful success.

Valentine chocolates arrive just when New Year’s resolutions may be weakening, so remember it has many health benefits! John Hopkins and Mayo Clinic6 both report chocolate elevates your mood, contains phytonutrients and antioxidants. Chocolate may lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, and improve cognitive function. So savor each sweet bite and remember as it melts on your tongue, this completes the long journey from a flower to your heart.

Hot Chocolate in Barcelona, so thick you ate it with a spoon

1 Cadbury Chocolates

Hershey Chocolates 

3 Geographies of Interconnection 

4 Fair Trade Chocolate

5 BBC World News 

6  Mayo Clinic 

I think I gained 5lbs doing this post

Other background sources

Did I make you want some chocolate?

23 thoughts on “From a Flower to Your Heart”

  1. Another OUTSTANDING LESSON teaching us about where and how heart healthy chocolate comes to us!!! Thank YOU!! Gorgeous pictures per usual, too!!

  2. Loved this! Such interesting information. I look forward to each and every blog from you! Thank you♥️

  3. Such a “trip” – an artistic and cultural potpourri! I have visited a few of the places you mention, but your experiences are nonpareil! Happy New Year…and I look forward to more beauty and adventure. From frosty and beautiful Minnesota…

  4. I must make a trip to Barcelona now, just for that hot chocolate! Very interesting post, it’s an amazing transformation from that ugly pod.

  5. Very interesting, I learned a lot. Just finished off some left over Hersheys Kisses from making Peanut Butter Clusters for Christmas. Also a dark chocolate bar I needed to shave for a dessert.

  6. What a great post! I love chocolate and always have. My Mom loved it too and that is how I got started! Fanny Farmers back in the day! Thank you so much for all the history and info!

  7. Thank you, Linda for this very informative story about chocolate. Being from Switzerland I love chocolate and always have some at home but had no idea about the very long process it takes before it gets ready to enjoy.
    Have a Happy New Year and a Happy Valentine’s Day

  8. This is delightful, Linda — and I learned so much too. My after-school and Saturdays job all through high school was at a Fannie Farmer Candy store in Billings, Montana!
    Thank you for always wonderful reading xxoo

  9. Love this kind of armchair travel. I remember being so astounded when I saw a cacao tree in a glass house in St Paul. I think it’s called Como Park conservatory.
    Tiny elegant flowers growing directly on the trunk.
    Cacao used to be in the Stericulaceae family but was lumped into Malvaceae a few years ago. I was disappointed because we have a couple plants that were in Stericulaceae here in AZ. Ayenia filiformis is small and blends in until one is introduced. The flowers are even tinier and so elegant. Now it’s merely a member of the Mallow family. It’s still fun to show it to people.
    Tough to get a good photo of but there are some here. New Mexico botanist Patrick Alexander’s photos are the best by me anyhow.

  10. It is always great to learn about how things came about. I had read that the chemical that when humans fall in love is similar to a chemical in chocolate. That is why someone would sent chocolates to someone they want to love them on Valentine’s Day.

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